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Why would a parent abandon a child? A look at the problem and solutions

Published: Saturday, Aug. 30 2014 2:30 p.m. MDT

Poor parenting skills, a lack of housing, lack of financial resources and substance abuse are the key reasons parents abandon children, but help is a phone call away.

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SALT LAKE CITY — The narratives surrounding child abandonment cases are as different as the people involved, front-line child welfare workers say.

But data collected by the state Division of Child and Family Services point to some common factors in these cases — poor parenting skills, a lack of housing, substance abuse and a lack of financial resources.

"The main issues are intertwined with most of the time," said Elaine Totten, a veteran DCFS supervisor, who also works as an on-call caseworker.

When people don't have money, they tend to move from one place to another, Totten said. "They don't get settled in and they don't create any community attachments. When they do need assistance, they don't know where to go," she said.

Even people who live with family members can feel isolated if they do not feel nurtured and supported, says Bonnie Peters, executive director of the Family Support Center, which operates three crisis nurseries in the Salt Lake County where overwhelmed parents can safely leave their children.

"Quite often the parents (who abandon children) feel abandoned themselves in terms of feeling isolated, not having a support system in which they can vent, talk, whatever," Peters said.

This past week, a newborn infant was discovered and pulled alive from a trash can in Kearns. Alicia Englert, 23, faces possible charges of attempted homicide after her newborn baby girl was rescued and taken to a hospital. According to jail records, the infant had received no medical treatment or nutrition before she was discarded.

Englert was being held in the Salt Lake County jail and the investigation is ongoing. Police said the baby was in critical condition Friday but stable and showing signs of improvement.

The number of child abandonment cases in Utah is actually declining and experts point to awareness of resources and the willingness of people to get involved as a reason. In 2001, 28 children were abandoned, dropping to 10 children last year.

How to help

There is a wide array of resources in the community to help expectant mothers and parents who feel overwhelmed, which includes the state's "Safe Haven" law that allows mothers to relinquish newborns up to 72 hours old to hospitals, to referrals to community resources by DCFS's statewide intake hotline at 1-855-323-3237.

The hotline, staffed 24/7, is also the number to report suspected child abuse and neglect, Totten said. "It is also a resource people in the community do use. I would like to see them use it more," she said.

The hotline can connect callers to support, therapy, classes and family meetings and many other community resources.

"These are things we can offer that sometimes people are too stressed out to know about it. There hasn't been enough emphasis in the community. They didn't know the could call the intake line and say, 'I'm in this situation. What can I do?' There are a lot of services we can refer to without our agency ever being involved."

DCFS statistics indicate that child abandonment is most often reported by family members, law enforcement and health care professionals. While child abandonment occurs in children newborn to age 17, abandonment of children under the age of 1 appears to be most common.

Drug abuse is often a factor, Peters said. If a pregnancy results from rape or sexual abuse, shame can be a factor, she said.

In some cases, parents receive little emotional support from their families, or worse, harsh judgment, she said

"Sometimes we are the most judgmental when it's within our own family. They don't need that. It's not our place to judge," Peters said.

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